I, Eric, have spent my entire life in Kentucky (minus some pretty great vacations here and there). I even lived in the same house from the time I was born until I got married! Because I’ve lived here for so long I guess it’s been pretty easy to dream of far away places. Going into college there was nothing more I wanted to do but work for NASA, sending people into space. In the fall of 2008 I got an internship with a NASA contractor in Houston, Texas working with a group on a new space suit. Starting out it sounded awesome, but by the end I realized that NASA wasn’t nearly as glamorous as I had dreamed. Living in Houston for 4 months gave me a serious case of homesickness; not just for friends and family back home, but for the state of Kentucky. It was on my drive back to Kentucky just before Christmas that I started to realize my connection to my homeland. Before experiencing the blandly warm weather of Houston I had openly complained about the wildly temperamental weather in Kentucky. But just seeing the changing leaves in northern Alabama in the month of December reminded me about the fall I missed in Kentucky. Since that season of my life I have grown to appreciate all that The Old Kentucky Home has to offer.
We don’t know what the future holds in store for us, but since Ally and I know we’re in Kentucky at least until she graduates from UK, we thought, “Hey! Let’s be tourists!” In my last post, “I Can’t Believe I’m Doing This Again (but actually I can),” I mentioned our lack of success at becoming sophisticated and acquiring a taste for wine. Neither Ally’s nor my parents drank when we were growing up, so we were never exposed to alcohol. But living in the heart of Bluegrass country has helped me realize how truly unique Bourbon is to Kentucky. So while we still don’t like the taste of alcohol we decided to figure out what all the fuss was about and went on a tour of Woodford Reserve. My engineering mind was also a little curious how on earth the fermentation process yields so many different types of alcoholic beverages; surely they’re all just the same.
We gathered our pals Nick, Tyler, and Audra, and ventured down the road to Versailles on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The tour began with a cheesy video displaying the rich history and heritage of bourbon and its close ties to Kentucky. After the video ended we were met by our tour guide: a sassy retired police officer who had a thing for rules. But I’ll tell ya, he knew his stuff. For instance, did you know that bourbon is made with only 5 ingredients? It’s the rule; anything else and it’s not bourbon. Those ingredients are corn, wheat, barely, yeast, and water. That’s all. No sugar. No flavoring. Nothing.
Now I wish the rest of this post could be as exciting as our tour with the spunky old fella but I don’t really remember as many details about the tour as I thought I did when I started writing. Perhaps I had a little too much bourbon (picture me sitting next to you nudging you with my elbow). Okay. I didn’t. They only gave us a 1 ounce sample. So it wasn’t the bourbon. Then maybe my memory loss is due to the high concentration of CO2 in the air when we were standing next to the 3 gigantic vats of fermenting mash. Here’s a picture:
To me, the most interesting thing about bourbon is how it gets its taste. Woodford Reserve is a single barrel bourbon which means that after they distill the beer created in the fermentation process to, I think, 118 proof, they store the bourbon in new white oak barrels with charred insides. The charring caramelizes the sugars in the wood.
Then the barrels of bourbon are stored in a big barn for about 8 years. This is where Kentucky really does its thing. It turns out that Kentucky has the perfect climate for making bourbon because as the bourbon heats up with the summer it expands into the oak barrel. And when winter comes the liquid contracts back out of the oak. It takes several cycles of this for the bourbon to get it’s taste and hue. As I said before, I don’t even like the taste of alcohol, but when our tour guide told us Kentucky has the perfect climate for making bourbon I swelled with pride. “Yeah! Yeah it does! Way to go Kentucky!”
I think overall I’ve just really grown fond of the rolling fields of bluegrass and tobacco barns around Lexington. Woodford Reserve really brought together all that is Kentucky for me. The oak barrels giving bourbon its flavor and the oak beams in the warehouse/barn took me back to my childhood days of growing up on Pin Oak Dr. The limestone used to construct some of the buildings echoed the limestone walls that mark property lines and trace one and two lane roads throughout horse country.
I loved getting to experience another bit of Kentucky! And at the end of the tour we got to sample some Woodford Reserve Bourbon. I think if I wanted to I could become a sophisticated gentleman with a big mustache (which reminds me of my new favorite pun, thank you KCJ) who sits on leather sofas with his cardigan-wearing colleagues discussing the events of today while drinking some bourbon. It would take some work, though. I think Tyler’s face pretty well sums up our reaction to bourbon, the drink. I say bourbon, the drink, because after this tour, bourbon to me now says “Kentucky.”
As you finish reading this post join me in raising your glass of water, orange juice, coffee, milk, beer, bourbon or whatever it is you have in there, and let’s toast… “Here’s to Kentucky!”